By Piya Srinivasan

exile

One thing we know about Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, whether through her writings or hearsay, is that she doesn’t mince words. Her memoir follows this legacy. Exile is about the fight of a woman against the state, a commentary on India’s struggle to maintain its secular credentials, the rapidly diminishing arena of free expression, and the ugly effect of vote bank politics on her life. Her open attacks on religion, patriarchy and intolerance are distilled into a retelling of her seven-month ordeal in 2007 against the Indian state’s coercive mechanisms.

Nasrin has many epithets: former physician, humanist, human rights activist, proponent of freedom of expression and women’s rights, battler of fatwas. Forced to leave Bangladesh in 1994 after the religious furore caused by her book Lajja, she led a nomadic existence in Europe and America for a decade. Her repeated attempts to return to Bangladesh were rejected by the government. The last of her three-part memoir, Ka, published as Dwikhandito in West Bengal, was banned by the local government in 2003 for hurting Muslim religious sentiments. In 2004, she was granted a residency permit in India and made a home in Kolkata, the place closest to her homeland in language and culture.

Her narrative — through musings, letters, conversations, diary entries and newspaper reports – uncovers the grit and grime of politics. After an attack on her by religious ideologues linked to the political party AIMIM at the launch of her book Shodh in Hyderabad, a violent protest march by rabble rousers demanding her expulsion from Kolkata expedited the state government’s “Exit Taslima” mission.  She was subsequently put under house arrest on her return to Kolkata, for fear of communal disturbances over her presence. When asked to arrest the protesters, the Commissioner of Police refused, saying this was a “minority issue”. She offers this as proof of manufactured dissent by the state government to secure the Muslim vote bank.

She challenges Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who was the chief minister at the time, on his studied silence over the Dwikhandito ban, approved by him after 25 prominent literary figures read the book and condemned it, clearly belying the Left Front’s progressive ideals. She condemns many of the city’s intellectuals and exposes the media-politics alliance through the instance of Anandabazar Patrika editor-in-chief Aveek Sarkar stalling her interview for the newspaper on the then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee’s behest, allegedly to appease fundamentalist factions in West Bengal.

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Reviewed by P N Balji

singapore-my-country

When you talk about this book, you have to talk about two people: Asia’s first postmaster general, Bala Subramanion, and the writer, Nilanjana Sengupta.

The story of Subramanion, 94, is a throwback to a Singapore that doesn’t exist today. He grew up in a forgotten past when the British, Japanese, then the British and finally Singaporeans ruled the country. It is a grandfather’s war story that many must have heard their old folk talk about. Subramanion’s story is interwoven with those of his struggles in a country torn apart by incendiary politics, abject poverty and big power rivalry. A combination of luck and smart instincts saw him rising up the ranks to reach the very top of the job he chose to be in. That profession is fast disappearing in a familiar narrative of disruptive technology. Singapore, My Country is a useful documentation of not just how the ubiquitous the post office was at one time.

It was a place we went to not just to post letters and parcels but buy stamps, paste them
on cards and start the habit of saving money. That little effort spawned into what is today a part of our lives, the Post Office Savings Bank.

A few years ago, there was an effort to do away with POSB’s ATMs because of the high cost of maintaining them. The protests were loud and that move was scuppered. Unfortunately, the book has very little about how the establishment was out of touch with a population that was still rooted in an institution like the POSB.

By Aju Mukhopadhyay


veils

Veils, Halos and Shackles, an international anthology of poetry was conceived in the wake of the gang rape and torture of Jyoti Singh Pandey (a physiotherapy student) by six brutes in a moving bus in New Delhi on the night of December 16, 2012, resulting in her death in a few days. It contains 250 poems by 180 poets, most of whom are women except some two dozen male voices living in different countries of the world. Most of the contributors are from the Indian subcontinent and the United States of America. It is for the first time that poets have opened their hearts and expressed their feelings about different forms of oppression and torture on women and the ways of their empowerment on such a large scale, making a global impact of the grave issue.

Indian women poets were heard for the first time in the Vedas (Sukta) in ancient time. Then the women monks of the Buddhist order also wrote some poetry followed by their progeny at different historical times flowing down to the modern age. To speak about the continuance of such enterprises we can mention one anthology that reached my hands. Roots and Wings (Ed. Annie George and Sandhya S N. Thiruvananthapuram: Roots and Wings. 2011. Paperback) is an anthology of 350 poems by 42 Indian woman poets from almost all the states of India. Though it does not concentrate on woman abuse of different types, their free voices are heard here; they speak about their problems including male domination and torture in different ways; ways of woman’s freedom in patriarchal society. Veils, Halos and Shackles is one of the largest projects in modern time. It has gained esteem as the woman’s hope for a better future.

By Atharva Pandit

farthest-field

The story of India’s involvement in the Second World War is a story untold, so that its history — and in one sense India’s collective history — has “remained unopened and unknown, until it rotted”. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, the Iranian novelist, meant those words for Iran, but they are universal, and Raghu Karnad has recognized them to be so, pulling this vital bit of history out of its rot. In Farthest Field, Karnad has dusted this history up for us, and presented it to us in a better form than perhaps anybody else would have, in part because this is also his personal history.

We don’t know of the exact moment the war came to India, or rather the exact moment when the Indians realized that the Panzers and the Heinkels might land up at their doorsteps, but Karnad tells us, in the very first sentence, that the news of the war reached Calicut “along with the morning eggs”. And then:

“Perhaps that isn’t true at all. Perhaps it’s only true that the price of the eggs was the first the Calicut Parsis saw of the costs of war; the first of many. Maybe they remembered what happened to the price of the eggs, even years and years later, because they wanted to forget what happened to the boys.”

And what happened to the boys? That is precisely the story, along with the story of India’s involvement in WW2, that Farthest Field wants to tell, and it’s a vast story with little documentation, which is one of the reasons why readers instantly believe in the capacity of this book to inform.